“Put your trust in God, my boys, but mind to keep your powder dry.” Those are the words attributed to Oliver Cromwell back in 1642 at the Battle of Edgehill. As William Safire wrote in 1997, Cromwell was advising his “boys” to “blaze away at the proper time.”
And that is the most appropriate term for what USA Today just did. “USA TODAY’s Editorial Board: Trump is ‘unfit for the presidency,'” reads the headline of the paper’s attention-grabbing piece. As it turns out, the newspaper has been keeping its powder dry for its entire existence:
In the 34-year history of USA TODAY, the Editorial Board has never taken sides in the presidential race. Instead, we’ve expressed opinions about the major issues and haven’t presumed to tell our readers, who have a variety of priorities and values, which choice is best for them. Because every presidential race is different, we revisit our no-endorsement policy every four years. We’ve never seen reason to alter our approach. Until now.
What could possibly account for such a change in policy? Duh. Donald Trump, as USA Today capably explains, is a threat to the United States on a number of fronts — eight, by the count of USA Today. He’s “erratic,” unprepared to be commander in chief, “traffics in prejudice” (which is an understatement), has a “checkered” business career, fails to “level” with the public, “speaks recklessly,” has “coarsened” politics and is a “serial liar.” The sheer awfulness of Trump, too, inspires some nice editorial writing from the USA Today folks. For example:
Did you ever imagine that a presidential candidate would discuss the size of his genitalia during a nationally televised Republican debate? Neither did we. Did you ever imagine a presidential candidate, one who avoided service in the military, would criticize Gold Star parents who lost a son in Iraq? Neither did we. Did you ever imagine you’d see a presidential candidate mock a disabled reporter? Neither did we. Trump’s inability or unwillingness to ignore criticism raises the specter of a president who, like Richard Nixon, would create enemies’ lists and be consumed with getting even with his critics.
All good, until the end, where USA Today caps off its well-reasoned editorializing with a belly-flop. You see, the USA Today editorial board failed to reach a consensus in favor of Clinton, who turns out to be not a perfect candidate. “Nor does this editorial represent unqualified support for Hillary Clinton, who has her own flaws (though hers are far less likely to threaten national security or lead to a constitutional crisis).” Specific flaws cited in the editorial include her “sense of entitlement, her lack of candor and her extreme carelessness in handling classified information.”
Then comes this woeful paragraph:
Where does that leave us? Our bottom-line advice for voters is this: Stay true to your convictions. That might mean a vote for Clinton, the most plausible alternative to keep Trump out of the White House. Or it might mean a third-party candidate. Or a write-in. Or a focus on down-ballot candidates who will serve the nation honestly, try to heal its divisions, and work to solve its problems.
Whatever you do, however, resist the siren song of a dangerous demagogue. By all means vote, just not for Donald Trump.
Bolding added to highlight a hold-on-a-moment moment. Did USA Today just issue a back-door quasi-endorsement of, like, Gary Johnson? The Libertarian Party candidate who didn’t know what Aleppo was? And did it just issue a back-door quasi-endorsement of Jill Stein? The Green Party nominee who … well, just hear out my colleague Catherine Rampell: “In brief: Despite being a medical doctor who knows better, she’s pandered to anti-vaxxers; expressed strong stances on high-profile issues, such as Brexit, only to abruptly reverse herself without explanation; and (along with running mate Ajamu Baraka) trafficked in conspiracy theories, among other disqualifying behaviors.”
And this business about a possible “write-in” vote? Why doesn’t USA Today just advise its readers to take up knitting?
Operations Editor Thuan Elston says in a video interview that the editorial board operates by “consensus.” Via a spokeswoman, USA Today editorial page editor Bill Sternberg tells the Erik Wemple Blog that a “position doesn’t pass if more than 2 board members are out of consensus. In the case of the Trump disendorsement, we were unanimous.”
Think about this: USA Today expends a great deal of energy and some glorious prose articulating just how dangerous would be a Trump presidency. Then it whiffs when it comes to advising its audience on how best to head off this potential catastrophe. Good thing the paper is holding fast to its procedures as the country threatens to burn down. Perhaps it should have stuck with that 34-year tradition.